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Why did Belarus lift the “Iron Curtain” from its borders?

On 3 April 2022, Belarusian authorities lifted the rigid restrictions on border crossings in force since late 2020. Just as Minsk had taken its own approach in handling Covid-19, it had also developed a unique travel restriction system. Instead...

On 3 April 2022, Belarusian authorities lifted the rigid restrictions on border crossings in force since late 2020. Just as Minsk had taken its own approach in handling Covid-19, it had also developed a unique travel restriction system. Instead of placing limits on inbound travel, travel restrictions apply primarily to those inside the country. Belarusians, for example, cannot leave the country without documented reasons. Belarusian media had referred to the border crossing restrictions as a new “Iron Curtain.”

In another unusual move, Belarus recently announced visa-free land entry for Lithuanians and Latvians, effective from 15 April to 15 May 2022. Belarusian authorities claimed the Orthodox and Catholic Easter holidays as the reason for the changes. Governments in Latvia and Lithuania reacted with suspicion. Not only is Belarus viewed as a participant in the continuing war in Ukraine, but Latvia and Lithuania recall the artificial migration crisis that Minsk created not long ago.

By opening its borders, Belarusian authorities appear to be looking to alleviate domestic tensions in society and exploring the possibility of increasing contact with the EU.

Preventing Covid-19 or controlling society?

From 21 December 2020 to 3 April 2022, private Belarusian citizens could not enter Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or Ukraine by land. The pretext was to contain Covid-19. But, for whatever reason, no restrictions applied to crossing Belarusian borders by air.

Belarusian citizens could exit Belarus by land once every three months, but only if they presented documented proof of travelling for work, study, medical reasons, family emergencies, or funerals. Only foreign diplomats, members of official delegations, or heavy goods vehicle drivers were exempt from these restrictions.

Minsk National Airport. Source: belarus.by.

In an unexpected move, Belarusian authorities lifted these limitations on 3 April 2022, returning to its pre-Covid-19 border crossing routine. Foreigners still need to present negative PCR tests or vaccination certificates, except for those who enter Belarus due to the war in Ukraine. Russians are also exempt from Covid-19 regulations.

Also, nationals of 76 countries can visit Belarus without a visa if they travel via Minsk National Airport. Although in October 2021, Belarusian Dictator Alexander Lukashenka amended the visa-free regime to exclude U.S. citizens from the list.

Currently, Minsk Airport serves only a few destinations in Russia, Turkey, the UAE, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. A reduction in flights followed sanctions against Belarus in 2021. The sanctions were in reaction to a pair of events. The first was the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May 2021, so the authorities could apprehend one of the passengers, opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich. The second event involved Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, flying migrants from the Middle East to Belarus to manufacture a border crisis with Belarus’ neighbours. The events led to limits on air travel to and from Belarus.

A new wave of migration from Belarus?

The lifting of travel restrictions could be an attempt to alleviate internal pressures in Belarusian society. Sanctions are provoking economic decline and prospects for the future remain uncertain. According to a recent World Bank report, a significant reduction in exports, tighter monetary and fiscal policy, and a decline in household consumption would reduce Belarusian GDP by at least 6.5 per cent in 2022.

Belarusians are more likely to consider migration in this situation. In spring 2022, EU countries started issuing short term, tourist Schengen visas after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions on travel. There is a wait of several weeks for a free appointment slot at any of the EU consulates or visa centres in Minsk.

In March, Belarusians queued at the consular department of the foreign ministry to legalise their documents, even despite the significant increase in processing fees. The legalisation of degree certificates is a necessary procedure to recognise them in another country. This suggests Belarusians are expecting an economic downturn and preparing to work abroad.

Belarusians queue to legalise their documents. Source: euroradio.fm.

Belstat, the national statistics authority, has not released official data on migration since 2019. But continued state repressions, a deteriorating economy, the relocation of businesses away from Belarus, and the war in Ukraine are all pressures that compel Belarusians to emigrate. For instance, the Georgian Interior Ministry recently reported the number of Belarusians entering Georgia has grown tenfold between 24 February and 16 March 2022, exceeding 15,000 people.

Visa-free entry for Latvians and Lithuanians

On 15 April, in a surprise move following the opening of borders, the State Border Committee announced visa-free entry via land borders for Lithuanian and Latvian nationals for one month. Belarusian authorities reported in the first two weeks about 11 thousand travellers had taken advantage of the changed visa regime.

Lukashenka has repeatedly stated that Lithuanians and Latvians “are lining at the border and ask us to let them through to Belarus.” On April 29, he added, “They [foreign governments] do not let their people travel to Belarus, because people come here to buy salt.”

But petrol is likely to be in greater demand than Belarusian salt. Political analyst Pavel Usau noted the visa waiver could have economic reasons. Belarusian authorities might want to take advantage of lower petrol prices and essentially turn Belarus into a petrol station for Europeans. This might help alleviate the economic pressure from sanctions. Usau suggested the authorities might think of extending visa-free rules to other European states that are geographically close to Belarus.

In response to the visa waiver, Latvia’s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens against visiting Belarus. The ministry cited “significant risks” and warned about possible recruitment “by the intelligence agencies of Russia and Belarus.”

Latvian officials say they have no reason to believe the visa-free regime was enacted for humanitarian reasons or with any good intentions. They recalled the recent “hybrid attack” on EU borders, referring to the 2021–2022 migrant crisis provoked by Minsk in reaction to the deterioration in Belarus-EU relations.

The bigger picture

Political analyst Valer Karbalevich suggested the visa waiver is a part of a larger plan by Belarusian authorities. As evidence, Karbalevich cited a letter dated 6 April by Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei to EU foreign ministries. In the letter, Makei writes about the need to “rethink the paradigm that will determine the future of Belarus-EU relations and that of the European security.”

RFE/RL journalist Rikard Jozwiak posted Makei’s letter to EU foreign ministries on Twitter. Source: Twitter @RikardJozwiak.

Karbalevich believes Minsk is trying to revive a strategy from 2014. They are attempting to use the Russia-Ukraine conflict to improve relations with the West. In this context, Makei’s letter and the visa waiver can be interpreted as steps to relaunch relations with the West.

But circumstances have changed significantly since 2014. Levels of trust between the EU and Belarus are extremely low. Small, symbolic steps cannot outweigh Belarusian dependency on Russia or a set of bigger issues, such as the growing number of political prisoners and the stated intention to expand Belarus’ death penalty. As long as Russian troops remain in Belarus and use Belarusian facilities to attack Ukraine, it is hard to take Lukashenka’s clumsy attempts at resuming contact with the EU seriously.

The visa waiver scheme and the opening of borders have not been completely ineffectual. These decisions have benefitted ordinary people. Belarusian citizens are now able to travel to the EU without spending a fortune on flights from Minsk, and Latvians and Lithuanians can visit their family and friends in Belarus, or just buy cheap petrol.

Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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